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Film review: Clemency, and Saint Frances

24 July 2020

Stephen Brown reviews two new film releases

Kelly O’Sullivan as Bridget and Ramona Edith-Williams as Frances in Saint Frances

Kelly O’Sullivan as Bridget and Ramona Edith-Williams as Frances in Saint Frances

“THESE services are really the only time [prisoners] can scream and holler and get all that stuff out. Even if it’s through a Gospel song.” Thus says the chaplain to the warden (prison governor) in Clemency (Cert. 15), now in cinemas and online (Curzon Home Cinema). But how does the warden, Bernadine Williams (Alfre Woodard), handle her own demons arising from overseeing capital punishment?

It has been a long time coming, but witnessing a bungled lethal injection tips her over the edge. Woodward performs with dignified restraint, and yet makes it clear how painfully she sanctions a fellow human being’s execution. The director, Chinonye Chukwu, has made a prison drama quite different from those exposing the horrors of incarceration or wrongful arrest.

Pierrepoint, the 2005 film about Britain’s not-quite-last hangman, bears some resemblance to this film, though lacking the sheer scale of capital punishment as occurs in the majority of American states. Clemency explores the balance of mercy against justice. Anthony Woods (Aldis Hodge) has been waiting many years for final sentence to be pronounced. We don’t know whether he is a murderer or not enough doubt exists.

Williams is scrupulous in respecting her charges. She informs them of their rights, tries to meet their requests, and operates in a fair-minded manner. One feels that it is sometimes more about the letter of the law rather than its spirit. Her inflexibility may be attributed to being a woman, and a black one at that, nervous in a white man’s world. Not risking criticism is taking its toll on her well-being. To whom can she turn in times of need? Bottling up emotions has alienated her husband, despite his best efforts to care. She has a good working relationship with her deputy, though she hesitates to offload a growing misery.

The chaplain, Fr Kendricks (Michael O’Neill), observes that it is always when an execution is imminent that she calls in on him. He is the one who stands alongside her as lethal doses are injected. About to retire, he admits his own need of healing. “If it were up to me, I’d stay. I’ve always felt drawn to this kind of work, but my wife’s started seeing things in me the nights I come home.”

Meanwhile, it becomes apparent that another kind of ministering has developed through the silent presence of Woods, whose life hangs in the balance. As Williams tacitly allows herself to enter this man’s world, stripped of power, she is led into a new vision of humanity. Alfre Woodard as Bernardine Williams, the American prison warden overseeing executions in ClemencyIt is very much in keeping with the notions that the L’Arche Community espouse. We have known throughout Clemency that Williams craves wholeness, as do others. Kendricks assures Woods, quoting Roman 8.39, that nothing can separate them from the love of God. (Appealing to a multi-faith audience, the script omits the Jesus bit of the sentence). In the process of the film, we are left to judge who best acts mercifully — and whether Williams, for one, is in as much need of forgiveness as anyone else.


IT IS not altogether clear why the film Saint Frances (Cert. 15) bears that title. Yes, there’s a six-year-old character of that name played by Ramona Edith-Williams. Canonisation, however, seems a long way off for her. In any event, the film isn’t primarily even about the child, but about her nanny. She is Bridget (Kelly O’Sullivan) a lapsed Roman Catholic 34-year-old who is still a crazy mixed-up kid. She purports to hate the Church, having attended one of its schools, but, as the saying goes, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic.”

Bridget forsakes her job as a waitress to become a nanny. She begins working for Frances’s stressed-out mother, Maya (Charin Alvarez), who has just had a baby boy. It is a Roman Catholic household, and Maya is a fervent believer. We regularly see her at prayer. It feels like a desperate attempt to regain self-worth, as she is barely coping with post-natal depression. A fridge magnet asserts “Unborn Lives Matter”.

This appears to be in direct contrast with Bridget’s own outlook. Finding herself pregnant, she dismisses it as a collection of cells the size of a pea. Alex Thompson’s film has been billed as a courageous look at taboo subjects. We certainly get close-ups of menstruation and abortion. The latter is the result of Bridget and her sexual partners’ relying on coitus interruptus as a means of contraception. Her current boyfriend Jace (Max Lipchitz) stands by her, but is firmly told that they are not in a relationship, just hanging out together. She refuses to discuss other options than termination. It typifies Bridget’s failure to acknowledge the validity of feelings, whether others’ or her own. Marketed as a comedy, in reality it’s a fairly miserable piece.

The film does provide opportunities to question prevailing expectations of what women should want out of life. Time, Bridget is told, isn’t on her side with what gets called a geriatric uterus, no career ladder, and the lack of a Significant Other. Fathoming where Bridget is coming from requires some effort. She is a well-educated woman with a job for which she is ill-suited. It is more a case of Frances’s taking care of Bridget than the reverse.

A turning-point occurs at the son’s baptism. Afterwards, Frances, who has a habit of running off, hides in the priest’s section of a confessional box. When Bridget enters the box, the child, wise beyond her years, counsels her. This is a moment of truth; for it signals a realisation that nobody has got life entirely sewn up. Few of us are quite what we seem.

Bridget’s scepticism, if not about Christianity, then about her denominational background, seems like one more front, something that is easier to be against than to know what one is for. She does learn something from the other characters, particularly Frances, for whom every day is a voyage of discovery. Life may be confusing, but, hey, we are all in this together — maybe, Bridget realises, even with fellow sojourners in church.

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